YOU know it’s been a good year so far when scoring a hat-trick in a win over England at Twickenham is merely the second most exciting thing to happen.
Winger Damien Hoyland achieved that landmark feat last month when Scotland beat the hosts to top their pool in the closing HSBC World Sevens Series leg in London and, that alone would have been a pleasant memory to bask in over the summer. However, an even more thrilling development has followed with the 21-year-old Edinburgh winger earning a shock call-up to Vern Cotter’s extended World Cup preparation squad and The Scotsman caught up with the rookie flier at the Font Romeu training base in the French Pyrenees this week.
Shock was the first emotion. I thought it was one of the sevens boys putting on a voiceDamien Hoyland
Hoyland was clearly still pinching himself to be there among the cream of the nation’s players and said: “It did come out of the blue because I’ve not really had much opportunity with Edinburgh so it’s great that I got the chance to be involved with the sevens. I was fortunate enough to have a few good tournaments but obviously I wasn’t expecting this to come from it.
“Getting selected for this came as a huge surprise. Gav Scott, the team manager, gave me the call. I was sitting with the girlfriend at the time and I got a call from a number I hadn’t seen before and she told me to not answer it. I said it might be important and it turned out it was.
“Shock was the first emotion. I actually thought it might be one of the sevens boys putting on a voice. I was close to telling them to get lost. It wasn’t until I got the official email that it started to sink in and I was delighted.”
While some of the more seasoned members of the squad may have found the more brutal tasks at the camp – like the night spent with French commandos – a test of endurance, Hoyland has been full of youthful enthusiasm and embraced the novel experience.
“It’s been challenging but it’s been amazing,” he said. “The kind of training I am used to is very rugby based – running and working on skills and that sort of thing, whereas this has been a bit different.
“Some of it has been tough, like the first night hiking up a mountain, which took about an hour and 45 minutes, but felt like it took forever. When we finally got up, we were told we were staying the night up there. It was really cold when the sun went down, which some of the boys weren’t expecting, and they only had a hoodie and a blanket. But us younger boys got snuggled up and managed to get a couple of hours’ kip.
“Some boys found the sleeping, or not sleeping, out in the cold hard but for me it was the hike that was really difficult, especially when the altitude really kicked in.”
The training camp has been a good chance for Hoyland to introduce himself to some less familiar faces and rub shoulders with some childhood heroes.
He explained: “I know some through the Under-20s and a couple from sevens, and obviously the Edinburgh guys are familiar to me but I hadn’t properly met most of them before this camp.
“The senior guys have been really good and welcoming and I’ve been fortunate to be rooming with Sean Lamont, who is someone I was watching when I was ten years old, so that has been pretty cool.”
To casual rugby observers, the response when Hoyland was included in Cotter’s 46-man pool may well have been ‘Damien who?” as the former James Gillespie’s pupil has made only one appearance for the Edinburgh first XV.
Hoyland first caught the eye with his lightning speed at parent club Boroughmuir before entering the elite development player programme and impressing at age-grade level. He was awarded a full Edinburgh contract last summer but has played most of his rugby with his draft club Melrose and with the sevens squad.
As well as that Twickenham hat-trick, Hoyland was also top tryscorer at the Wellington event and believes time spent in the abbreviated game has been beneficial to his development. The wing, who can also play full-back, was caught up in the uncertainty surrounding the future of the sevens squad in the wake of the loss of the Scotstoun leg from the world circuit.
It has since been confirmed that Scotland will continue to field a squad in some form on the premier circuit next season and Hoyland, who did have the safety net of an Edinburgh contract, is a great advocate of sevens.
“The whole sevens year has been a great experience,” he said. “I’ve said it before but I don’t think the things that were going on behind the scenes affected our performances at all. It’s such a good group and we focused on the job at hand at all times.
“Although there was all this stuff going on we were able to cancel it out. I’ve got loads of respect for the way those guys dealt with it. It was different for me because I’m an Edinburgh player and had that contract but the way the guys with sevens contracts were able to stay positive was hugely impressive.”
And what about that hat-trick? “I can’t remember a time I’ve felt better about anything on a rugby field to be honest,” is Hoyland’s verdict. “It’s definitely the highlight of my playing career so far. It looks good on paper but tries always come from the hard work of the team and as a winger it’s often me who is lucky to be in space on the end of things to finish off.”
There is always the chance that Hoyland, with the priceless asset of blistering pace, could be a wildcard pick in the final 31-man squad. If not, then he is relishing the prospect of a proper crack at the Edinburgh team, with coach Alan Solomons identifying him as one of the young players he expects to make an impact in the next year.
Cotter is likely to use as many players as possible in the four warm-up games, so a first cap this summer is well and truly on the cards. “That thought is an unbelievably exciting one,” said Hoyland. “This time last year I could never have thought that possible, even though it is something you obviously aim to achieve at some stage. But first things first, I’ve got to get my head down and keep working.”
As for possibly making the World Cup itself, Hoyland takes a moment to contemplate the extraordinary, but by no means impossible, prospect.
“I wouldn’t say it’s too huge to consider because everything is possible,” he said. “If I train really well in the next couple of months and impress Vern then who knows. The opportunity is there but it’s going to take a lot of hard graft.”